Bad idea: Political police

The debate over how to run the police force and whether some of its senior members should be elected is one of those arguments where each side is accusing the other of the same thing, like two tearful siblings each trying to convince their parents that the other one started the squabble.

In this case, the bickering is over the influence of politics on policing. Centralisation is to blame, argue the Tories, unsurprisingly. And they're backed up by the think tank Policy Exchange, whose report Partners in Crime advocates elected local police commissioners to "revitalise the relationship between the police and the public", making the service less of a "political football" to be kicked around by the Home Secretary. Meanwhile, the critics of this plan, who include Ian Blair and Hugh Orde, argue that elected members are exactly the way to make policing even more political than it already is. Candidates, they say, would end up appealing to populist, or even extremist views.

Policy Exchange does not deny the shortcomings of its idea, but instead suggests measures to counter them. Partners in Crime acknowledges that the public's priorities may be, for instance, "graffiti or dog-fouling", which may not be one of the police's greatest concerns. Its solution is for elected commissioners to provide "advice and oversight", rather than direct orders. So, presumably, they would be in the unenviable position of telling senior officers what the public wants, and then explaining to the public why the police are ignoring their troubles with Mrs Miggins's cocker spaniel.

Policy Exchange acknowledges that extremists could gain too much power in times of such low voter turnout. In order to protect against the worst, the think tank suggests, commissioners could be made to take an oath "requiring them to restrict their public remarks to their area of responsibility and to consider the impact on diversity and community cohesion". Apart from the oddness of setting up a democratic election and then restricting the participants, this plan wouldn't stop those with extreme views from getting elected, as long as she or he didn't get caught saying anything out of line in public.

The funny thing about the plan is that it is almost entirely about keeping up appearances. The report is not about reducing crime figures - which, the report admits, has been happening more or less consistently during the Labour government's time in charge - but buffing up the force's image.
Nobody would deny public confidence is important; it has been Labour's one centralised target for the police force for some time. But somehow, employing toothless commissioners doesn't seem like the right way to do it.


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This article first appeared in the 23 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Green Heroes and Villains